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Online Identities: Being Professional in Public Forums


If you are involved or interested in the tech industry, you may have heard about the incident at PyCon this year. I’m not going to go into the details. You can read about it yourself. However, it raises a question about professionalism and professional identity. According to Merriam-Webster, one extended definition of professional is “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession” and  “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.”

The keyword is workplace. In the digital age, where is the workplace? Is it the physical place you go to that is not your home? What if you telecommute? If your work, and by extension, your professional identity take place online through listservs, discussion forums, Twitter, and Facebook groups, does that make the online world your workplace? When profiles are linked and employer information is presented, does one have an obligation to act in a professional manner?

We’d like to hear from you. How do you manage your professional identity online? What behavior is and isn’t okay? Do you feel there is tension with how your profession is represented? What advice do you have for someone just starting out in your profession?


Joe Montibello (@firstweet)

“If your work, and by extension, your professional identity take place online…does that make the online world your workplace?”

I think it does. If you choose to take an action (make a statement, join a group, whatever) online, and you choose to take that action using an online identity that you have established, then you should expect consequences (good, bad and indifferent) to fall on that identity.

Even simpler, though, is categorizing behavior at a conference. If your registration, travel, or other expenses have been paid by your employer, or if you’ve been given paid time off from work, to attend a professional gathering, you should treat that as company time. If you wouldn’t say or do it at work, within earshot of both your own administration and professional visitors from other companies/organizations, don’t do it at a conference.

Cia DeMartino

One issue with “the online world [as] your workplace” model is how much our lives are lived online. The idea of controlling everything that you search, every review you’ve ever left, the products you buy, every image of you that is tagged, etc. is daunting. The incident at PyCon demonstrates how even a small exchange can become a bloody battlefield. As an administrator, an instructional technologist, and a professor, do I need to sanitize what I do online even if it is “off-the-clock” (if there is such a thing, anymore), using my own devices? For better or worse, the answer may be yes.

Timothy A. Lepczyk

There’s an interesting segment on This American Life (linked that talks about privacy and data. It’s in the context of the NSA wiretap news and focuses on lawyers who represent prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. The lawyers believe the government is listening in on their phone calls and monitoring their email. Different perspectives arise from the alleged activity. One can self-monitor and censor one’s speech or one can continue on, indifferent to who may be listening. While the internet is a noisy place, search engines make it hard to remain online and be private. Is anonymity an answer?

Gary McGath

We live in a very polarized culture. I’m sure everyone here has seen posts, possibly by friends, with fierce blanket denunciations of everyone who belongs to the wrong political party. People think that “zero tolerance” is a good thing. Combined with the broad visibility of whatever we say online, this creates situations in which people are fired for off-color jokes and others are harassed for objecting to those jokes. Trying to draw lines around what is “the workplace” is beside the point; it’s all visible.

My own approach is to be as publicly opinionated as I like and let things fall as they may. A lot of people would consider this reckless, and they may be quiet online about anything that could offend anybody (which is to say, about anything of any substance). It’s a matter of choosing the level of risk you’re willing to live with against the level of self-repression you’re willing to engage in.

The social-network paradigm is already severely strained, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years there’s a significant shift back to private and semi-private communications. People don’t like living in goldfish bowls.


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